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Education at work wins all

Last week's budget and this week's skills white paper confirm the importance of the Government's employer training programme to its forward plans. Employer training pilots (ETPs) have been running since 2002. Over the next three years, the programme will go nationwide and will become the main vehicle for delivering the level 2 entitlement to adults. This will cost several hundred million pounds.

The growth of ETPs caught some in colleges by surprise. The pilots were launched in 2002 at the same time as the Success for All programme. While the then-minister for lifelong learning was telling colleges to focus on what they were good at and not follow every initiative, the Chancellor of the Exchequer was launching a new initiative on training.

At a time when funding auditors were making it more difficult for colleges to work on employers' premises, the new pilots made this a central part of its design.

Given the circumstances, it is not surprising that some people missed the significance of ETPs. But in this government, like no other, the Treasury gets its way. Funding for other projects may be tight but money can generally be found where the Treasury thinks it necessary.

The various Success for All programmes, started in 2002, will be competing hard for money in the next couple of years. The successful ones will stay, others will fall by the wayside. Meanwhile, the policies that started in the Treasury have more certain backing.

Last week's Budget put another pound;80 million into financial support for 16 to 18-year-olds who have dropped out of education and training. All in all, the Treasury will set aside more than pound;600m a year for financial support by 2006 where there was almost nothing at the start of the decade.

The package of education allowances, training allowances and child benefit in a wider set of circumstances shows that if a policy has Treasury backing, it faces few obstacles.

Moving forward, ETPs are a useful tool for many colleges when working with employers. As the pilots have proliferated, the number of participants using a college for their training has risen to more than 40 per cent.

ETPs have allowed colleges to develop existing employer-training programmes and make new links. The fact that the training is free does occasionally create confusion given other government policies that employers should be paying more. But the offer of free training is always an aid to recruitment.

The clear government commitment to a national employer training programme cannot hide some uncertainty over what this will involve.

The first is money. The Treasury has been using the spare funds from the windfall tax to pay for the pilots but this money runs out in 2005.

The Department for Education and Skills has had to find pound;60m in transitional funding in 2005-6 and is putting pressure on the Learning and Skills Council to redirect some of its adult budget from 2006-7 onwards.

But at what cost?

It is not clear why public funding for individual vocational education should be cut in 2006 so that employers can train their staff for free at government expense.

If the DfES needs to find money to match the Treasury's contribution to the programme, surely it could look elsewhere within its pound;64 billion annual budget.

The uncertainty over funding will affect programme design. There is a desire to use independent brokers but these professionals do not come cheap.

Money spent on brokerage leaves less for training and also risks adding to the bureaucracy faced by employers. Will colleges and other training providers have to get the permission of a broker before talking to an employer?

Finally, there is uncertainty over delivery. The general government push to make public funding more "contestable" will influence the programme.

Colleges and training providers may have to bid to win funding.

If so, considerable care will need to be taken to ensure that quality is maintained and that the easiest employees are not cherry-picked to secure maximum funds at minimum cost.

Underlying this whole exercise is the theory set out in Budget documents that productivity gains follow on from the acquisition of formal qualifications by adults. There is plenty of circumstantial evidence of the link between skills, abilities and productivity, but government policy raises questions.

It is possible that the most valuable skills and abilities are acquired by adults in the sorts of courses currently dismissed as being "other provision". These are the courses that could get cut in the fights over the LSC's budget.

An expensive experiment in human capital theory could destroy the adult courses that do most to raise the horizons and potential of those who choose to participate.

Julian Gravatt is director of funding and development at the Association of Colleges

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